HELENA (AP) - Documents found in the state's computer system show former Secretary of State Mike Cooney illegally used government equipment for his political campaigns, his state Senate opponent charged Friday.
Mary Jo Fox, a Helena Republican running against Cooney in Senate District 26, said the presence of a news release from Cooney's 2000 gubernatorial campaign and a list of campaign donors from the late 1980s and early 1990s are evidence of wrongdoing.
"It's illegal," she said. "Things don't just appear on state equipment without someone processing that information. An employee of Mike Cooney created the document for his personal advantage in a campaign."
Cooney, a Democrat who was secretary of state for 12 years, said he has no idea how the two documents came to be in the computer system that serves the secretary of state's office.
"I talked to some of my former staff and it's a mystery how it happened," he said. "It's an unfortunate mistake and I'm not glad that it happened. But I was the one in charge; I'll take responsibility."
Cooney said no campaign activities took place in his office and state resources were not used for political purposes during his tenure. "We never did anything regarding the campaign in there - no ifs, ands or buts," he said.
Fox told The Associated Press that the campaign news release could be found in the computer system now used by Cooney's successor, Republican Bob Brown. She said she heard about it while campaigning.
She said someone in Brown's office told her about the contributors' list, but she would not identify the person. She told Brown's staff where the document could be found.
Gayle Shirley, Brown's communications director, said the office's computer specialist believes the campaign news release was put on the office's network computer drive about a half hour before Cooney left office Jan. 2, 2001.
The contributors' list appears to have been there since Nov. 4, 1997, she said.
However, Shirley said officials were unable to determine who created or accessed the files.
Randy Holm, manager of end-user computing in the Information Technology Services Division, said there is no way to know if such documents were created on a state computer, or when and how the files were put into a state computer.
The fact that the files were found in the system is a violation of state law prohibiting use of state resources for political campaigns, Fox said.
"There's no reason for a contributors' list to be on a state computer, or any campaign propaganda," she said.
She suggested the presence of the financial supporters' list went beyond any campaign by Cooney. "He was in a position to license businesses. Was that kept on a computer to decide who gets preferential treatment?"
"That's grasping at straws," Cooney responded. "It's a desperate candidate who has nothing good to say about anybody trying to discredit someone who has built a good reputation over the years."
"There's no sinister plot here," he said. "I treated everybody fairly."
Fox said the state should be repaid for any state employee time used to create the documents, if that can be proven.
"Beyond that, it's ironic that a person who holds an office that is supposed to encourage more voter participation somehow compromises the public trust," she said. "I don't know how you repay that."
Cooney said he resents Fox's attack on his integrity.
"This is down-in-the-dirt mudslinging," he said. "For somebody to take this and indicate that I was abusing my office highly offends me."
Cooney said he was always careful to impress on his office staff that any campaign-related work they might be involved in must be done on their own time outside the office.
"I went to great lengths to make sure procedures were in place to make sure there was a separation from my public duties as secretary of state and as a partisan candidate," he said.
Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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